John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Go and make some coffee, John. And tell me, which of those manuscripts do you think is in Wordsworth's writing?'
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The Independent Online

At the end of Martin Amis's debut novel, The Rachel Papers, the callow adolescent hero Charles Highway goes for his entrance exam interview at an Oxford college. He is cocky, cynical, hyperarticulate, well-read, ferociously au courant with all shades of modern literary theory - and he has no actual opinions of his own. At the top of a staircase, in a room creaking with antiquity and bookish learning, he is interrogated by an English tutor called Charles Knowd, a languid and pooh-poohing figure some way removed from the dry intellectual you might expect in the city of dreaming spires. Knowd sees right through Highway's armour of clever-dick learning, and recommends that perhaps he should start reading literature and deciding whether or not he actually likes it - the key moment at which our smug teenager is confronted by his own shallowness.

The languidly subversive tutor was, in real life, Jonathan Wordsworth, who died last week aged 74. I bring it up because he was my tutor as well, in the mid-1970s, and I thought the world of him; his influence hung like a glowing northern light over the lives of an army of students who passed through Exeter College, Oxford - and later St Catherine's College - through three decades. A large, intensely physical man, he was amazingly un-donnish: he dressed in jeans, he affected a country-squire upper-class drawl (in which Othello became "Ore-thello"), and his long lank black hair flopped over his brow, until he swept it back in a theatrical gesture. He had a noble forehead and a large nose, just like his great-great-great-grand-uncle; a picture of William the Poet, showing the great man in reflective mood, hung in his study and Jonathan, in mid-lesson, would fall half-consciously into the same pose, hand on cheek. He didn't care for student bullshit. If you used gestures during a tutorial, his eyes would follow your hands with fascination. If you earnestly promoted a doomed theory, he would regard you with a look of incredulity, as if amazed at the nonsense one human being could talk. He wasn't keen on symbolic vagueness either - when looking at Blake's illustrations for the Songs of Innocence, he'd say, "So you say this burning tree is meant to be the organ of generation, do you? Hmm. Does your cock look like that?"

He could be a little old-fashioned about knowing what was what: if he told you to come to his rooms on Staircase One at teatime, it was the height of folly to show up at 4pm or 5pm, or any time that wasn't 4.30pm. When the girls from St Hugh's (all the colleges were single-sex in those far-off days, children) came along to share criticism classes with us at noon on Fridays, Jonathan would regale the scholars with sherry; just in case anyone couldn't stomach his bone-dry fino, he brought an alternative along. "Would you care for the dry?" he would enquire, "or the [shudder] slightly less dry?" We had no idea such sophistication existed.

He was good at making you feel your opinion counted. Once I arrived at a 9am tutorial to find him stripped to the waist and shaving in the tiny bedroom off his study. "Go and make some coffee, John," he said, "and tell me which of the manuscripts on the floor is in Wordsworth's writing." On the carpet were four photostats of handwritten poetry, sent to Jonathan by an American academy to be authenticated (or not) as the true hand of his ancestor. He and I spent a jolly hour comparing loops and crossed Ts, trying to decide whether a few sheets of paper were worth $100,000 or nothing at all to some professors at the University of Austin, Texas. I think they might have been startled by our not-terribly-scientific authentication methods. I could feel the picture of William on the wall behind me, silently intrigued to think that everyone should be so interested in him still.

Jonathan made academicism seem exciting. He treated texts as things to be understood only gradually, to be decoded and investigated and given a human context. If you volunteered a reason why TS Eliot might have used the word "cogitations" in a poem, Jonathan would (if you were lucky) say, "Yairs, I think that's right" - absolute heresy in modern literature circles. He distrusted theory and clung to unfashionable notions of subjectivity: he said literary criticism started in establishing whether a piece of writing moved you or didn't, and writing about your personal response. He was the tutor-as-hero, who taught us that learning to feel was a process no less important than learning to think.

* I must admit my jaw dropped a yard on Friday night when Jonathan Ross asked David Cameron if he'd ever pleasured himself, at the age of 13, while thinking of Mrs Thatcher. The BBC received 27 complaints about the interchange ("No" was broadly the answer) and a spokesman said "[Ross] has got a tongue-in-cheek approach and his interviewing technique features a lot of innuendo." So that's innuendo is it, saying "Did you or did you not have a wank while thinking 'Margaret Thatcher'?" Heaven help us when Mr Ross drops the subtlety and starts being direct.

I feel that something of a breakthrough has been reached in the interface between politics and the media, and in the directness of the interviewer's approach. I see no reason why John Humphrys shouldn't confront John Reid on Today one morning with the words, "Home Secretary, I put it to you that you have a gigantic crush on Hazel Blears. Come on, admit it. You lie awake all night thinking of riding on her motorbike..."

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